A few years ago, I started a blog about the history and culture of Egypt - especially with regards to medieval Cairo. My posts covered topics ranging from Ramadan lanterns to mosques visits. Soon, I'll be shutting down the older blog, on which I haven't posted in a long time, and my goal is to transfer over as much of the relevant content to this new blog as possible. Today, I'm starting with a post I wrote about the Ahmed Ibn Tulun Mosque in the Sayyida Zaynab neighborhood. In the coming weeks, look for more of these types of posts in addition to updates on my PhD research. After I transfer over everything I think is relevant, I'll start creating some new, similar content.
Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun 263-265AH/876-879CE
One of the largest and most impressive mosques in Cairo also happens to be the oldest. Well, at least the oldest in roughly its original form (the mosque of 'Amr ibn al-As is older by about 200 years, but has been modified significantly over the centuries).
In order to understand the architectural and historical significance of Ibn Tulun's mosque, we have to first see how it fits into the bigger picture of its historical context. When Ibn Tulun came to Egypt in 868, the 'Abbasid dynasty reigned in Baghdad. The 'Abbasids (750–1258CE) based their claims to legitimacy on descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his uncle 'Abbas. Their rule was marked by decadence and a rise in court culture, influenced greatly by their incorporation of Persian traditions, and it has often been described as the "Golden Age" or the classical period.
Riots in Baghdad in 836, agitated by soldiers, caused the caliph al-Mu'atassim to move the court out of Baghdad and to found a new city, Samarra. Greatly expanded by the caliph Mutawakkil; he built the Great Samarra Mosque, which served as the city's centerpiece and became an inspiration for Ibn Tulun, as we shall see. Financial troubles and anarchy in Samarra following the death of Mutawakkil, resulted in his successor, al-Mu’tazz, granting the revenues of the provinces to pay the various Turkish leaders of his armies. In 868, al-Mu’tazz granted Egypt to Bayikbak, who appointed Ahmed Ibn Tulun, his stepson, to govern the province and oversee the collection and delivery of its revenue. When Ibn Tulun arrived in Egypt, conflict arose with the pre-existing financial administrator, Ibn al-Mudabbir. Trouble in Syria and Palestine allowed Ibn Tulun to raise his own revenue and army and march at the service of the caliph. As a result, al-Mudabbir was marginalized and Ibn Tulun became powerful in a way previously unprecedented for a provincial governor. While still pledging allegiance to the caliph in Baghdad, he was given the ability to appoint a successor as governor, his son. Making the governorship both quasi-independent and hereditary. The dynasty is often referred to as the Tulunids.
Their capital city, ‘Abbasid in style, was modeled after Samarra and named al-Qata’i (the Quarters). It was located in what is now the Sayyida Zaynab neighborhood of Cairo and what was then just north-east of the original Arab settlement Fustat. The city was intended solely for the court; the general public continued to live in Fustat. At the center of his new city, Ibn Tulun built his mosque.
When you enter the mosque, or see it from above (I've had this privilege several times when landing at Cairo airport from the south), the first thing that strikes you is its size. Covering six and a half acres, the mosque was built large enough that Ibn Tulun's entire army could fit inside for Friday prayers. Its layout being modeled on that of the Great Mosque of Mutawakkil in Samara, even the building technique and style was inspired by its 'Abbasid counterpart.
In entering the mosque from the street, you first come into the ziyada or addition (literally "extra"). This overflow area served to separate the mosque from the street and prevented market stalls from being attached to the mosque directly.
Once you actually enter the mosque, the rows and rows of columns surrounding the center courtyard are impressive. They were made using stamped, wet plaster; the same technique as used in Samarra.
Another important feature of any mosque, and of particular interest in Ibn Tulun, is the mihrab. This indentation on the qibla (the direction of Mecca) wall demarcates the actual direction towards which worshipers are to direct their prayers. The mihrab of Ibn Tulun is particularly interesting because it is mostly in its original form, and its hood contains wood that dates to the time of the mosque's construction. Legend has it that this wood was from Noah's Ark. Next to the mihrab is the minbar which is the "pulpit" of the mosque.
The courtyard of the mosque is one of its most impressive features. Built so large as to hold the Ibn Tulun's entire military entourage, the courtyard's proportions are staggering. In its center is a domed structure used for ablution before prayer. It is not an original part of the mosque. The fountain was constructed and parts of the minaret were reconstructed, following earthquake damage, by Sultan Lagan in the Mamluk period. The ablution space is particularly Mamluk in style. It features a large dome, red and white striping, and maqarnas (stalactite-looking carvings) on the pendentives (joints) of the dome. The minaret, too, features much reconstruction. Originally a complete spiral, inspired by the minaret of the Great Mosque of Mutawakkil in Samarra, the base is now square as a result of Sultan Lagan's attempts to sure up its foundation. Also, the mubakhara top is also a later addition; probably an attempt by Sultan Lagan to finish the minaret in an earlier style. Unfortunately, he was off by a century; the mubakhara was a hallmark of the Fatimids, who ruled a century after Ibn Tulun.
A climb to the top of the minaret of Ibn Tulun gives one of the most rewarding sights in Cairo: a 360 degree view of the city, with prominent views of the Citadel. Between its views and its history, the Mosque of Ahmed ibn Tulun is a must see in a visit to Cairo and an essential mosque to the story of the city.
Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, (Great Britain: Pearson Longman, 2004).
------, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, (Cambridge: Da Capo Press 2006).
Caroline Williams, Islamic Monuments of Cairo: The Practical Guide, (Cairo: AUC Press, 2008).